Sunday, May 31, 2009

Texas prison cell-phone scandal making national news

The latest issue of Wired magazine includes a feature on the problem of cell phone smuggling in Texas prisons by Vince Beiser, highlighting the much-ballyhooed case where a death-row inmate began calling state Sen. John Whitmire, launching a statewide lockdown that revealed dozens more phones at units statewide.

Though certainly there are cases out there of prisoners using phones to commit crimes, and Wired runs through the most frequently cited examples, most cell phone use, of course, is to stay in touch with family and friends not to "order hits" or commit new offenses. Still the issue certainly constitutes a security threat, most immediately because it contributes to guard corruption, a point the story emphasizes:
the easiest—and probably most common—way mobiles are moving into prisons is in the pockets of guards and other prison staff. "There's no question that corrupt officers are involved," says Texas inspector general [John] Moriarty. The risk is small, the payoff big. Correctional staff coming to work are typically searched only lightly, if at all, and a phone can fetch a couple thousand dollars. One California officer told investigators he made more than $100,000 in a single year selling phones.
Deep into the article after listing several stories of crimes related to illegal cell phones, the tone changes when Beiser begins to talk about solutions:
There's no question that prisoners are using cell phones to foment all kinds of mayhem. But investigations have established that most calls placed on contraband mobiles are harmless—just saying hi to family and friends. Whatever their crimes, most convicts have parents, children, and others they're desperate to stay in touch with. Letters are slow, and personal visits often involve expensive, time-sucking travel. Some prisons have public phones for making collect calls, but access is limited, conversations are often monitored, and phone companies often charge much higher rates than on the outside.
Texas prison officials quoted in the story agreed part of the solution must be expanding legal communication between inmates and their families:
the most compelling reason to let inmates ... talk to their families isn't that it's nice for them or even their mothers. It's that it could reduce crime and save the public a bundle by cutting recidivism. Most of the more than 2 million men and women behind bars in the US will eventually be released, and decades of research show that those who maintain family ties are much less likely to land back in jail. Every parolee who stays straight saves taxpayers an average of more than $22,000 a year.

Even tough-on-crime Texas has embraced that logic. The state has long refused to allow phones of any sort for inmates in its prisons, but this year officials are installing landlines. "Once they're in place, we expect a decrease in the problem," Moriarty says.

Wired's story was followed up by pieces in Time magazine and on CNN referencing Texas' cell phone smuggling woes.

The best solution here, unfortunately, must come from the federal level: A 1934 law bans state and local governments from jamming broadcast signals and would have to be altered by Congress, according to officials at the FCC.

See related Grits coverage:


Anonymous said...

Arizona is using dogs to sniff out cell phones in prison.

Anonymous said...

"There's no question that prisoners are using cell phones to foment all kinds of mayhem."

Really? If this were true, wouldn't it be reported? Are there examples of "all kinds of mayhem?"

Anonymous said...

I'm suprised TDCJ took so long to add the phones. It is quite a generator of revenue. However, there are plenty of organizations that are fighting the excessive rates they are getting.

sunray's wench said...

The phone system is unlikely to generate any revenue for TDCJ. The profits (the first $100,000 I believe, after operational costs are recovered) must go to a Victims' Compensation Fund. Only after that will TX see any money from the phone system.

There are many inmate families who will still not be eligible to register for the phone system because of the strict rules in place as to who owns the phone line and who is on the inmate's visitation list. Those in care homes for example, who have the use of the phone but do not pay for the landline, are not eligible to register. Overseas calls are also not permitted with the new system. These two things alone will seriously limit the potential revenue source.

85tiger said...

Inmates using cell phones to foment mayhem is largely a myth spun by prosecutors to make juries give more time for cell phone cases or to make the public feel outraged. The vast majority of them are calling their families and friends. I once tried a case where an inmate got 40 years for calling his cousin.

Now they are a problem becuase of the corruption it causes (and not just the guards). The profit motive comes in when enterprising inmates rent the phones to those who don't have them.

A jury in Anderson County recently gave an inmate 60 years for a cell phone case. That cannot be cost effective in the long run.

Soronel Haetir said...

The vast majority of them are calling their families and friends. I once tried a case where an inmate got 40 years for calling his cousin.


Just as a point on this, I've seen plenty of cases where people were involved with family members for their crimes. That seems like a rather silly distinction to be making, that somehow family and friends are immune from committing more crime.

I am however willing to accept that most inmates are just trying to get ahold of family for innocent reasons, but to trot out the relationship itself for proof of this proposition is silly.

BB said...

Only a person with no background whatsoever in security operations would downplay the serious potential for harm posed by convicted felons in a secure institution who have access to cellular phones.

The jamming technology is indeed the most reasonable short term response to this particular issue in Texas corrections. Let's us not forget however about the potential for unsuitable employees to traffick weapons, tobacco and narcotics. It is also not uncommon to hear of staff who are involved sexually with convicted felons.

I read an article in the Shreveport Times on the 18th of May where the executives from Louisiana DOC are qouted as stating that their abiltiy to prevent misconduct,abuse,sex with offenders and other forms of corruption was greatly enhanced when the employees were provided a fair wage, the organization was then stable and competitive, and the new recruits could then be properly screened for suitability.

Our system in Texas has been deteriorating for 15 years because the necessary investment after the massive prison expansion in the 1990's was never made. One can't help but wonder what will have to happen in Texas to compel our state leaders to properly address the poor labor quality and the unhealthy work environment in our prison system?


Watching Them, Watching Us said...

The Wired article says :

In response, on October 20 Texas governor Rick Perry ordered every one of the state's 112 prisons locked down and all 156,000 inmates searched. Officials found 128 phones, including a dozen on death row, as well as scores of chargers, batteries, and SIM cards. That brought the total number of phones and related items confiscated from Texas prisons in 2008 to more than 1,000.

By way of comparison, the entire prison population here in the UK, a country of 60 million people, is 80,000 (other European Union countries imprison far fewer people as a fraction of their populations).

The annual mobile phone / SIM card seizures by the UK authorities is running at around 3,500

Most use of illegal mobile phone is due to the exorbitant cost and scarcity of of the monitored landline prison phone system, but there are plenty of examples of the phones being used by Serious Organised Criminals to direct the activities of their gangs from within prisons.

Simple jamming of mobile phone radio signals (a regulated monopoly, the commercial rights to which cost billions of of pounds) is, like in the USA, illegal and, in our crowded urban environment, likely to cause "callateral damage" to the areas around the prisons, including the creation of radio blackspots where the public cannot even call the Police or Ambulance or Fire and rescue services etc.(even if there is a life threatening incident at or near the prison itself).

This may appear to be less of an issue in Texas, where some of the prisons must be, by UK standards, very isolated in terms of distance from the neighbouring communities.
However, it also depends on the density of mobile phone cell antenna towers in the area , which could be interfered with by a radio locked down prison - less of a rural population density, means fewer normal mobile phone towers, which means more of a "callateral damage" effect if even only one of them is interfered with by the presence of a "radio locked down" prison.

It is possible to electronically suppress mobile phone signals, but it requires the installation of extra mobile phone infrastructure such as pico-cells , as used in Airports, to compensate for the blackspots caused by shielding and jamming or natural poor radio reception.

The issue is then who pays for this.

However, look at modern mobile phone handset and you will see many types which can also use BlueTooth or WiFi on the unregulated 2.4 GHz frequency, so simple radio signal jamming or shielding or more sophisticated mobile phone base station antenna to handset handshake protocol blocking at 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz (GSM frequencies used around the world) or 2100MHz (3G PP) is not enough.

According to the UK Serious Organised Crime Agency, there is some evidence of prisoners users Games Consoles to re-charge the batteries of illegal mobile phones (unclear if this is by using the same transformers / chargers, or through the use of USB ports) -

See The Times Row over claims that crime lords 'running empires from jail using PlayStations'

See also Spy Blog: Thousands of Mobile Phones seized in UK Prisons - evidence of corruption ?

Anonymous said...

"Only a person with no background whatsoever in security operations would downplay the serious potential for harm posed by convicted felons in a secure institution who have access to cellular phones."

Luckily, no one has been so dense to say that here (or downplay the potential for harm). The question is, if they ARE being used to foment mayhem, let's have some accounts of the mayhem! The cautionary tales are tellingly absent when people talk about prison cell phones.

Soronel Haetir said...

Calling a legislator and threatening him, even if they were threats the inmate wasn't really in a position to carry through on isn't mayhem?

85tiger said...

I did not say that cell phones in the prison system were not a problem. I also never said that this is something we should ignore. My point is this, every time the subject of cell phones in prison comes up, this argument that the prisoners are using them to forment mayhem on the outside comes up, but no one ever offers any proof beyond their own speculation that this is indeed what is happening. I am sure there are plenty of inmates who fall into that category. The argument is usually presented as "they're in the prisons using their cell phones to order hits and drug deals." In my experience the majority use the phones to maintain personal relationships with family members. But what gets heard and reported is that inmates are using phones to cause violence and that colors the policy making decisions that go into solving the problem. 60 years at $60 or $70 per day adds up to a lot of money. That seems to me a little like killing a mosquito with a howitzer.

I have yet to see a case since possession of a cell phone became a felony that involved any kind of activity of the sort that ususally finds its way into media reporting of the subject.

BB said...

It is reasonable to suggest that most offenders with cellular phones only call their friends and family. It is not reasonable to ignore all the escapes and murder for hires facilitated across this country by convicted felons with phones inside a secure adult correctional institution.
Many offenders keep a homemade weapon in their possession during incarceration bacause they are afraid. Do we rationalize this and ignore it because most won't ever utilize it against another person? The majority of our incarcerated population will never attempt ot escape. Why then do we continue to maintain our fences and supervise them accordingly? Why do we utlize hand restrints in many circumstances when it is only a few who are likely to do bodily harm to another?
Mayhem would occur on a daily basis if we did not have social order in our penal instiutions. Removal of cell phones systematically is an important part of this objective. This must be addressed despite the fact that so many only talk ot friends and family.


85tiger said...

"Removal of cell phones systematically is an important part of this objective. This must be addressed despite the fact that so many only talk ot friends and family."

I agree, but can't we acheive this goal with policies that fit the particualrized facts of a given case. Periodic sweeps, better paid and better appreciated corrections staff, removal of barriers to inmates maintaining positive relationships with friends and family and sanctions that fit the evidence in the case rather than speculation. Prison space is a finite and expensive resource. Save the 40 year sentence for the person who actually is running his criminal enterprise from prison not the guy who is catching up on family gossip.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we could train Rick Perry to sniff out cell phones. Theres an idea!

Hook Em Horns said...

I, for one, would like to know what evidence there is that any of these offenders has "put out a hit", "given gang orders", "bought drugs", or ordered a pizza on one of these cell phones.

Also, why haven't any staff members been charged? So far, all we have is typical Texas knee-jerk reaction which is like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound to the head. I read somewhere that Texas seized 1,200 illegal cellphones in 2008.

As someone else said. Where's the mayhem? Until someone threatened Whitmire, there was NO MAYHEM.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, no one is saying inmates should have cell phones, that cell phones could not be used to facilitate crime on the outside, or that there shouldn't be prosecution for contraband. The issue is the outlandish quote from the article stating a basic assumption that has no basis (until we are shown otherwise) in reality. At least not at TDCJ.

Diamond said...

Hasn't contraband of all types always been snuck into prisons? It seems like they could do a better job of preventing this type of thing from happening.

Anonymous said...

Well the good thing about cell phones is it seems they are a hotter item than drugs... Maybe some would-be pushers are out of business?

Anonymous said...

I wish I could set up a kiosk at Huntsville. Oh well, if the phones were legal, TDCJ would make all the money right? Why aren't they selling these on commissary?

Anonymous said...

Arizona is using dogs to sniff out cell phones in prison.

And Texas is using Rick Perry to sniff out phones in prison.

NOW that's funny.

Charlie O said...

I don't know how long it's been since the phones were approved, but here it is June 2009 and still no phones at the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville. And their requirements for the phone that inmates CAN call is pretty ridiculous for this day. No cellphones, no VOIP phones, only land lines. And the rates are higher for an out of state call than an in state call. No logic to that either. If and when they get phones installed at Lane Murray, I've got get a landline installed in my house. Something I've managed to do without for over 4 years.

jdgalt said...

Action by the FCC (or Congress) would only be required if the prison wants to broadcast an active jamming signal on cellular frequencies; but that is probably a bad idea anyway, since prison staff may well benefit from using cell phones, especially if they need to call for help. Besides, prisons tend to be full of things like bars and concrete walls which will block the jamming signal in some spots, thus still allowing phones to be used if you know exactly where -- and prisoners have all the time in the world to experiment.

I suggest two alternative methods which are already legal now.

1. Surround the prison with a Faraday cage. The easiest (but NOT the only) way to do this is to embed it in the walls when building a new facility.

2. Have the prison establish its own cellular phone site inside the walls (so that any phone turned on inside will "find" only that cell tower). That tower can then refuse service to any phone not registered with the Warden's office; his staff can monitor (and maybe censor) calls; they can set up a limited list of numbers to/from which calls can be made; and, if multiple antennas are used, the equipment can show them the location of an unauthorized phone, so they can seize it.

Anonymous said...

author, fellow author.
I really enjoyed this article.
The author, I beseech you write more.

Anonymous said...

Not all prisoners use cell phones to plan illegal things... I know of one prisoner who uses a cell phone to call his wife and family. They can not afford to pay the outragous prices of going through the prison phone system. He is doing nothing wrong, but caring about his family.